Preaching on Christmas is always a bit of a challenge, partly because everyone out there in the pews is reviewing their family obligations to see if they’re on target. Since I was addressing UU’s who include everyone — mildly theist to militantly anti-theist to what’s theist? — it was even more tricky. But I was talking to live people with their faces pointed at me, which was a major help.
An excellent theory about communication of all kinds, but esp. speaking to real and present people, is that it is NOT a matter of special construction by a trained or at least willing person, a presentation, a “thing” like an artistic creation, a baked cake. The real truth is that speaking is something that happens in midair between the speaker and the listener, a grappling with morphing meaning.
Sometimes people told me they just didn’t get it. Maybe they’re like the young man who complained when I used a metaphorical story about a bear who fell in love with a woman and proposed marriage (which was about lesbianism and the sameness of gender in the face of difference between species). “I don’t get the bear?” he puzzled to his girl friend, who failed to react to the question.
Once in a while the audience just didn’t like my point of view. I preached about light, using vignettes of — you know — candles, footlights, that star, and finally the ignition tail of a nuclear missile bursting out of a silo. A young woman complained, “Christmas is supposed to be perfect and about love — then you go and put in something evil! You spoiled it.”
Since there were scientists in the audience, I sometimes got corrections. I was told there was no such thing as “pre-Cambrian life.” (Since then, the theory has changed and there IS pre-Cambrian life. Well, that’s science for you!)
Writing a blog post is a little different. My blogger account tells me that I got 1700 hits yesterday, from every continent except Antarctica. The strategy of responding to the receiving faces of the hearers can’t work. I have to just put my words out there and see what happens. I’m not advertising. There’s no way to leave a blog out on a coffee table and pretend you’ve read it, even if you haven’t but hope to impress visitors. I suppose you could mention prairiemary in conversations.
Here’s my swerve. I recently cancelled “Vanity Fair” after years of reading all but the ads. Instead I subscribed to “The Atlantic,” which I assumed would be the same dignified and edifying magazine as always. Wrong. But how do I describe it? “Vanity Fair” was smart-aleck and speedy. “The Atlantic” is more high-toned than online “Aeon”, which is saying something. I feel as though I have stumbled into a class at Johns Hopkins, where they actually understand Derrida, or so they say. I wouldn’t be able to judge since my upreaching/outstretched hands are barely catching the vocabulary. They’re right up there with “The Edge.”
It’s probably significant that one of the articles (by Bryan Caplan) is a complaint that college is not college anymore — there are no more forty hour weeks of class and study, the content of the courses is irrelevant to much of anything, and the only thing that will help get a job is the reputation of the piece of paper at the end. (Who gave you the diploma? The administration.) The author stoops to suggest a good practical community college or vocational school might be a better path to a good life. He’s probably right.
With “Vanity Fair” it had gotten so I flipped quickly through the trash talk in the first half or two-thirds — not resenting it because I understand that it pays for the serious journalism printed towards the back — and then tore that part of the magazine off so the articles were easier to hold. I saved the perfume samples for book markers, very pleasant, at least to me.
This morning I was reading the Jan/Feb issue of "The Atlantic" and was delighted by an article about jellyfish — I reached out to it.
“The creature’s wispy anatomy confers on it the specific beauty of the readily destroyed, a quality that elicits comparisons to things that are empty and lambent — light bulbs, dropped lingerie, a nebular constellation, the cellophane wrappers from hotel soaps, dribbles of wax.
“How appealing it is to fashion metaphors out of a jelly fish. The animal is all stimulus, sensuousness without consciousness.” (By Rebecca Giggs)
This is in a section called “The Culture File.” Maybe it should be called “the pursuit of culture” which seems lately to be fleeing before us. Smash politics, declarations that everything is computer-like — in fact, we’re actually living in a computer. Which is better because computers never accuse you of having spanked their fannies. Writing about religious matters is pretty well spin-dried as well.
When I first moved back here, I was planning on being a natural history writer. Anthropology is pretty risky when you live next to a reservation. History is useful, if you’re careful and esp. if you’re into revisionism. But then I got pulled back and back to my undergrad “language and thought,” Hayakawa and Whorf ideas, this time made into natural history by neurology research, the micro-galaxies in our heads. I’ve been reading people unknown by anyone around here.
My brain is changing. A Blackfeet man was telling me about his feeling of deja vu, and I feel that too, so I looked it up. It’s considered a symptom of subtle brain malfunction. The jellyfish article says that “one of the most striking indications of contact with an Irukandji jellyfish [is] a sense of impending doom.” The article says nothing about deja vu, but the two feelings are entwined in every day’s news. We’re back to the nuclear threats, the Cold War, and repulsive but seductive demagogues.
Another intriguing article is “The New New Testament” about re-translating the Gospels from the original documents using a new consciousness, not so traditionally sonorous. (By James Parker) “In the beginning was . . . well, what? A clap of the divine hands and a poetic shock wave? Or an itchy node of nothingness inconceivably scratching itself into somethingness? . . .A pre-temporal syllable swelling to utterance in the mouth of the universe, spoken once and heard forever. . .”
The claim of Christmas is that of conception. Somethingness that we need to rediscover how to say.